Use Edges and Value the Marginal
by Deena Wade
Founder of the Transition movement, Rob Hopkins, taught permaculture—design principles in agriculture that mimic sustainable patterns found in natural systems—when he and his students decided to apply these same principles to social culture. Out of this experiment, Transition Towns went viral across the world as a model for building thriving local communities. Permaculture is guided by 12 principles and several slogans, or maxims. This is the 11th in a series of articles exploring the principles of permaculture within the landscape of relationship, both personal and community.
Some years ago in my early thirties, I earned a degree in environmental studies. Of all the odds and ends we studied, one of the bits of information that stuck in my memory was about edges, and I was reminded of it again while pondering this month’s permaculture principle #11, Use Edges and Value the Marginal. In ecological systems, the edges between two biogregions—lakes, forests, marshes, grasslands, etc.—is called an ecotone. Ecotones are extremely diverse and rich, as different flora and fauna and their habitats overlap. Since we’re as much an expression of nature as a forest or a stream, it makes sense that humans share many of the same patterns and find them to be apt poetic metaphors, as well.
For example, what are the edges and transitional zones in our relationships with each other? One way to look at edges in a relationship is to consider those places that feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar. Those edges of comfort can be opportunities for great expansion and discovery, both about our self and each other. This could be as simple as taking on new unfamiliar tasks in our household to share more equitably in chores, or it could be as vulnerable as giving our partner more freedom to express dreams and talents even if it means sacrificing some of their time or attention at home. And even further, are we willing to amble beyond the borders of our own familiar beliefs—the most fundamental of all, who am I?—in order to discover new potential and possibilities? The edges of our comfort zones provide fertile soil for growth and unexpected bounty, along with opportunities to transition into new ways of relating.
In David Holmgren’s book, “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability,” he writes, “Design that sees edge as an opportunity rather than a problem is more likely to be successful and adaptable.” Edges are the interface between self and other, where we cross boundaries and challenge ideas that may have limited our perception and conditioned us to behave in certain ways. Edges can be seen as invitations to flourish rather than limits that bind us. Another quote worth consideration along these lines is “Don’t think you’re on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path.” Edges are dynamic areas in our relationships, those places where you and I meet, where exchange takes place and innovation happens.
On a broader scale, edges can also be what we consider marginal neighborhoods, communities with very little fiscal resources or political clout. More and more we see examples of these marginal, low-income neighborhoods taking a stand for resiliency and community-building, showing what’s possible when people embrace change and reclaim the power of neighborliness and generosity. Residents build community gardens in abandoned lots and give neighbors work and foster a sense of pride. They inspire us with courage and resourcefulness, and they play an important role in demonstrating what is possible.
The Transition Movement, at least in part, is designed around crossing borders of race, ethnicity, wealth, religion, and even politics to discover the common ground we all share. Last year when my colleague Lisa Jones and I organized the Rondout Valley Common Ground Celebration, our vision was to bring people from all corners of the valley together for a day to celebrate the bounty of our shared home. The Signs of Sustainability Awards, curated by Lisa and a few others, did a beautiful job of reaching out to people across the board, from merchants to farmers to teachers and beyond, to honor the contributions they’ve made to our community’s local resilience in a variety of ways.
From one perspective, you could say we are nothing but a series of edges, borders and boundaries—one thing after another appearing in this world of multiplicity. You and me, sky and earth, rough and smooth, love and hate. From another perspective, you could see that all of these apparent edges do not truly separate us from each other but prove us inseparable. They show us how interdependent we are, or as Thich Nhat Hahn calls it, “interbeing”. By seeing our edges as opportunities and by valuing the margins, we can build stronger, more creative, innovative relationships and communities, crossing borders that once seemed to divide us and now bring us closer together.
(Next month we’ll explore Principle Twelve: Creatively Use and Respond to Change.
Deena Wade is a local massage therapist, freelance writer, Living Inquiries Facilitator, and dog mom. Her websites are sensiblebliss.com, theradicalinvestigation.org, and her blog is easeofbeing.org.